Easter 2 - Faith and Doubt
A sermon preached at St George's on 27 April 2014 by the Revd Ivo Morshead
Acts 2 v 14a,22-32. 1 Peter 1 v 3-9. John 20; 19-31
Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1 v 8
After the glory of Easter here we are at what is called Low Sunday, so named for its contrast to what preceded it with the Easter celebrations last Sunday. In my childhood, when school was rather to be dreaded, this Sunday would also mark the end of the Easter Holidays and back to the seemingly endless grind of the school term. I was sent to a boarding school at the age of 7 and had above my bed a carefully prepared lot of pencilled squares equivalent in number to how many days remained before the end of term. Every night I would fill in one more square, at first it was very much a low time with the empty squares seemingly unachievable in their number and with a seemingly impossible time before they were filled.
In a way it is the same for the church as we set off on the 50 day stretch to Pentecost or Whit Sunday, the day on which the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, a day we shall celebrate in the what now seems a distant June 8th , a day again of celebration and rejoicing just as a small boy I would have rejoiced at the end of term. As a child, time crawled by, as an adults 80 years beyond that school age the time passes so quickly, that it will be upon us before we know what has hit us with all the 150 anniversary celebrations in May and so forth in between now and then.
Just as I marked off the days confident that the end of term would come in the end so the church calendar puts before us now the fact that the Spirit of God has been very much present well before Whit Sunday. It reminds us right from the moment of the Crucifixion because Our Lord passed it on to his followers from the Cross. In John 19 v 30 in John’s account of the Crucifixion, we can read; ‘When Jesus had received the wine he said ‘It is finished, then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. It was this spirit that was promised by Jesus in John 7 v 38. In the words of Jesus to the Jews Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water, which John interpreted as Now he said this about the spirit which believers in him were to receive....v39. Here at the foot of the Cross this Spirit was passed on with the words gave up his spirit..
This same Spirit is passed on again in the Gospel today when Jesus appears to the disciples and breathing on them he said Receive the Holy Spirit. With this Spirit he empowered them to offer forgiveness. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.... . From earliest childhood we sin in one way or another. In my case at that boarding school Saturday night was often to be dreaded because that was the day on which the headmaster would come round the dormitories and administer the punishment warranted by the week’s offences. This practice had a very good effect on us for two reasons, one because it made us realise that crime did not pay and we would work harder or whatever, the second because what had happened was now past and forgotten. We were free from any guilt or dread. The church throughout the centuries has known this to be true, hence the manner in which this and every Eucharistic service begins with the confession and subsequent absolution. As an ordained priest I have heard very many private confessions which have been a great release for those who had very much on their mind. I know the feeling of release from guilt and the great peace of mind that comes from making such aural confession myself as part of my training and role as a priest. The effect of guilt can lead to the taking of one’s life, Judas who hung himself at the first Easter and tragically now the school master in charge of the hundreds of drowned children in Korea at this present Easter.
At that first Easter Thomas the apostle who was not present on that evening of the first day after the crucifixion when Jesus appeared to the disciples locked away in a room for fear of the Jews, had not himself heard the words of the risen Christ or seen him. Hearsay was not enough for him to have faith and believe. Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe. It was a week later that again the disciples were locked away in a room and Jesus came again. This time Thomas saw for himself and heard himself the words of Jesus Peace be with you. This peace is not so much the absence of enmity, the opposite of war, but rather that peace which comes with the release from guilt. Our Lord teaches us in the prayer that he has given us that first thing we must do after satisfying our hunger is to first acknowledge our own weaknesses and then forgive others whom we find a pain in our lives for whatever reason big or small. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses and as we forgive those who trespass against us. The same words that I had to pray at that school every day from the age of seven and still do 80 years on. The breath of God that was passed on by Jesus to his disciples is passed on to us to bring us forgiveness and peace. We don’t have to wait until the day of Pentecost to experience this Spirit, it is here and now and was sealed upon us at our baptism. In that Gospel we have printed in our pew sheet John reminds us that Jesus did many other signs in the presences of his disciples which he did not record but that he wrote here that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
I wonder how many of us have problems with our faith and belief. We are at present bombarded by those who decry the decline in Christianity in the United Kingdom, the prime minister is castigated for standing up for the religious. I wonder how many of the press corps, the BBC and we ourselves have looked at the results of the 2011 census? 60% of the population registered as being Christian, 25% of no belief, 4.9% Moslem and the remaining 10% a mixture of Jewish .5%, Sikh .6% and all the others making up the rest. In short, only one quarter of the population are registered as admitting to being without any religious belief and by far the greatest majority of the rest are Christian. Perhaps it is time for us to stand up and be counted. But if we did stand up what would we say?
The answer is set out plainly in today’s’ first lesson from Acts 2. The Holy Spirit has just come upon the disciples in front of many witnesses who see and hear them speaking in tongues that all of any nation could understand. They are accused of being drunk and Peter stands up to defend them. His first words should be echoed loudly by the church today, Listen to what I have to say.... Peter begins with the words Jesus of Nazareth. He then speaks of the definite plan of God to use those, whom Peter describes as outside the law, to crucify and kill him, but, says Peter God raised him up, having freed him from death..and then goes on to expound scripture to assure the listeners that all this had been foretold of old by the prophets and the psalmist.
Although as a seven year old onwards I had been reared in the faith. Like Thomas I carried my doubts into adulthood and even into the beginning of my time at theological college 33 years on but I knew that may wiser than myself had had faith even to death and I needed to persevere until the truth as with Thomas was personally vouchsafed to me. If any of us still have that lingering doubt then don’t give up. If you are fortunate to be secure in faith and free of all feelings of guilt then rejoice and in the words of the epistle today Although you have not seen him you love him; and even though you do not see him now , you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.( 1 Peter 3 v 9). At the age of 7 that joy came when all the squares in the table above my bed had been filled and it was time to go home for the holidays. For us all at some time in life we may feel we have too many empty squares still to be filled to complete fully our faith, our belief and our peace. May we persevere and await with confidence that as with Thomas the time will come when we are complete in our faith and we shall be able, as in 1 Peter, to have moments when we rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy as we are assured of the salvation of our souls.